Up front, the obvious needs to be stated for the record: As a Jets fan, you would much rather have a head coach who does not make critical mistakes in endgame situations than a head coach who admits his critical mistakes in endgame situations.
Robert Saleh understands this. At 43, in only his second year, he is still learning on the job. It’s a hard thing to manage when your second-year quarterback is learning on the job too.
But the Jets coach screwed up on that final drive against the Lions on Sunday, when Zach Wilson was operating at a higher level than his coach as both raced against the clock. Down 20-17, Saleh should have called one of his three available timeouts after that second-down completion to Garrett Wilson with 48 seconds to go. Had he done so, Wilson would have gotten an extra snap, and kicker Greg Zuerlein might have gotten an easier assignment than the 58-yarder he missed.
Oh, and Saleh wouldn’t have walked out of MetLife Stadium with one unused timeout tucked inside his travel bag.
Working on only a half-hour’s sleep, a frayed Saleh might’ve risen Monday morning and held on for dear life to his initial explanation — that he feared a timeout could lead to a reversal of the first-down spot on that 10-yard Garrett Wilson catch. He could’ve focused on the defensive breakdowns that allowed the immortal Brock Wright to score the winning touchdown, and on the singles and doubles his quarterback couldn’t deliver in between his home runs.
Instead, on further review, Saleh pleaded guilty to the time-management crime that effectively wasted 24 seconds, and that will be cited among the late-season felonies if the Jets miss the postseason cut. “It’s something that I definitely need to be better at,” Saleh said. “Definitely overthought it, and wish I could have that one back.”
Saleh is hardly the first NFL head coach to suffer a brain freeze at the worst possible moment; the Jets have had more than their fair share of them. It can get wild and crazy inside the final minute of these games, as Bill Belichick rediscovered the hard way in Las Vegas, where his Patriots came up with an unfathomable way to lose.
It happens to the best of them. Although it’s way too early to know if Saleh will grow into a coaching titan, his willingness to take a direct hit from fans and media reveals a dose of the humanity required of all successful leaders.
“We watch the way that Coach Saleh carries himself,” said star rookie corner Sauce Gardner. “And being able to take responsibility in the public, that’s big right there, because most head coaches, they just kind of cover their behind for something. But the fact that he could do something like that shows that he’s a great leader for sure.”
Players keep score on these things. Accountability is a two-way street, and if the guys wearing headsets are often defining defeats as failed execution by the guys wearing helmets and pads, their seasons are more likely to unravel.
And the truth is, despite the fact that the 6-3 Jets have become the 7-7 Jets, and that Saleh has had to navigate too much Zach Wilson-or-Mike White drama, the team is not unraveling. Over the last three weeks, the Jets have lost two tight road games to opponents (the Vikings and Bills) who are now a combined 22-6, and a tight home game to the hottest team in football.
The Jets absolutely should’ve beaten the Lions, because they should’ve covered Wright on the fourth-and-inches pass from Jared Goff that changed everything. “It’s a play that they’ve run a lot,” Saleh said. Then why didn’t the Jets have an answer for it? And why did the Detroit coaching staff come up with the day’s decisive call, rather than Saleh’s staff?
One more question that pertains to Thursday night’s matchup with Trevor Lawrence and the Jaguars: When it comes to developing young passers, can the defensive-minded Saleh and his relatively inexperienced coordinator Mike LaFleur match up with Doug Pederson, a championship-winning head coach and longtime NFL quarterback, and his young coordinator Press Taylor, who came up with the legendary “Philly Special” play that helped the Eagles topple Belichick’s Patriots in the Super Bowl?
To be determined. Meanwhile, Saleh spent more time Monday defending Wilson and assailing “this new instant-coffee world” that won’t give his QB time to brew than he did defending himself. “I don’t think there’s anyone in this building who looks inward more than I do,” Saleh said.
Good. The ultimate standard in his business, Belichick, once stood in a locker room full of crying, broken men and solely blamed himself for perhaps the most devastating defeat in modern NFL history — the Super Bowl XLII loss to the Giants that cost New England a 19 -0 season. “Other than my father,” said one of his players, Heath Evans, “I’ve never had more respect for a man at any moment in my life as that man in that moment.”
Sometimes true leadership can be found on the wrong side of the scoreboard.